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At hearing on N.H. state budget, dozens seek more money for favorite programs

Last modified: 3/11/2013 9:55:28 AM
More than 50 citizens, activists and lobbyists came before the House’s budget-writing committee yesterday, with most seeking more money for favorite programs: alcohol and substance abuse treatment and prevention, services for the developmentally disabled, the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, domestic violence prevention.

And a handful asked the House Finance Committee to reject a proposed source of revenue: casino gambling, which Gov. Maggie Hassan has said would provide $80 million in license revenue to help balance the next two-year state budget.

“We believe the proper role of government is to maintain order, to preserve justice and to promote the common good,” said the Rev. Linda Lea Snyder, interim executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches. “Relying on a source of revenue which degrades our state in so many ways and exploits the most vulnerable members of our society is contrary to this principle.”

The Finance Committee heard more than two hours of testimony yesterday in Representatives Hall at the State House, in the first of a series of public hearings on the state budget.

Hassan, a Democrat, submitted her budget proposal for the biennium that begins July 1 to the Legislature last month. She has proposed increasing total state spending by 10.2 percent from the current biennium, with general-fund spending up 7.1 percent, relying on revenue from, among other things, a single casino and an increase in the cigarette tax.

The committee is now working on the House’s version of the budget. The Senate will take up the budget in April.

Additional public hearings are planned Monday in Nashua and Whitefield, and March 18 in Claremont and Rochester.

Across the spectrum

There were no loud calls yesterday to cut state spending. Dozens of speakers asked the Finance Committee to support some of Hassan’s budget priorities, and in many cases, people asked committee members to add more money for specific programs.

A number of people spoke in support of Hassan’s proposal to fully fund the state’s services wait list for people with developmental disabilities.

Brint Woodward, 41, of Plymouth, has autism and is blind. He was accompanied to the microphone by his mother, Patsy Kendall.

“Please don’t take all that money and cut all the spending,” Woodward told the committee, to applause.

Some people spoke in favor of the increased funding for mental-health programs in Hassan’s budget.

Others weren’t happy with Hassan’s proposed budget cut to domestic violence programs, which are set to get nearly $184,000 less over the next biennium than the current biennium, a 6.8 percent cut. (Hassan’s budget assumes less revenue from the federal government for those programs.)

John Cantin asked that money be restored to those programs. His daughter, 29-year-old Missy Charbonneau of Manchester, was murdered in 2009 by her husband, who also shot Cantin before killing himself.

“My daughter was raising a family, and her hopes and dreams were to do that. She never thought these things would happen to her,” Cantin said. “What happened was devastating, and I really believe that if we had received these programs earlier on . . . it could probably have prevented this.”

Several retired state and local workers asked the committee to unfreeze cost-of-living adjustments for pension recipients, and others asked the state to help increase pay for personal care assistants, who assist disabled people with their daily routines.

Others asked for more money for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, LCHIP, drug and alcohol treatment programs and various other services.

“A lot of folks (came) tonight that have expressed need for all kinds of dollars,” said Jennifer Bertrand of Mont Vernon, a member of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, to the committee. “I would not want to be sitting where you are right now.”

Fights to come

Inside and outside the hall yesterday, legislators and advocates seemed to be positioning themselves for debates and fights ahead on the budget.

Leslie Melby, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Hospital Association, expressed concern about the state’s Medicaid Enhancement Tax on hospitals. Changes in the 2011 state budget reduced payments to hospitals, and Hassan has proposed restoring some of that money.

“It is absolutely certain . . . that we cannot continue the current policy,” Melby told the committee.

Weare Rep. Neal Kurk, a Republican and member of the Finance Committee, opened yesterday’s hearing by announcing he had two proposed budget amendments, one to establish a one-year moratorium on new electric transmission lines and wind turbines in the state, and a second to revise the state’s certificate of need board, which oversees hospital facilities.

And in a statement emailed to reporters during the hearing, the University System of New Hampshire warned House budget-writers against cutting Hassan’s proposed funding for the system. Hassan proposed sending $165 million to the system over the next biennium, which school officials said would be enough to freeze in-state tuition for two years.

“The Legislature has a clear choice to make. We either can responsibly fund the restoration budget proposed by Gov. Hassan, or we can continue to underfund the state’s commitment – a course of action that has caused our students to bear the highest average loan debts of any state in the country,” said Richard Galway, chairman of the university system’s board of trustees, in the statement.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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